Slowly but Surely, Suu Kyi Opens Up for Local Documentary

By Samantha Michaels 27 June 2013

RANGOON — The first Burmese film director to make a documentary about Aung San Suu Kyi has run into a slight problem: the Lady’s busy schedule.

“I asked for 10 interviews—each an hour in length—but so far I’ve only had two interviews,” Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who started filming the feature-length documentary last year, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “I asked for one interview each month … but after the first interview, I had to wait another 10 months for the second, so the production period will be longer than I planned.

“But I understand,” he added. “She is very busy.”

The 51-year-old director, screenwriter, filmmaker and poet, who organized an international human rights film festival earlier this month in Rangoon, is the first native Burmese director to ever portray the life of the 68-year-old democracy icon, who was elected to Parliament last year and has since announced her ambition to be the country’s next president.

He says it took several months to win Suu Kyi’s trust, after meeting her for the first time a month after she was released from house arrest under the former military regime in November 2010. He went to her office with a copy of his award-winning documentary “The Floating Tomatoes,” about the environmental damage to Inle Lake in east Burma, and asked if she would be willing to be his next subject.

“She said she would watch my documentary and then she would consider it,” said the filmmaker, who studied film and video production while working as an engineer in Singapore.

The next summer he got in touch with Suu Kyi again, after being invited to attend an international poetry festival in Colombia. “Before I went, I asked the Lady to give me a poem to recite there, along with my own poems. She composed a poem and gave it to me,” he said. “When I came back, I had a chance to meet her again and ask about the documentary, and at that time she said, ‘OK, you can proceed.’”

The director and his crew started shooting last July at Suu Kyi’s residence in Rangoon, but they have also traveled as far as Europe to capture her in action. In addition to filming the opposition leader on the campaign trail before parliamentarian by-elections, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi flew to Norway in June last year when she collected her Nobel Peace Prize. He hopes to wrap up production by 2015, after initially estimating that the entire project would take only one or two years to complete.

Although Burma’s film censorship board has not yet been disbanded, film production is much easier now than it was under the former military regime, which handed power to a nominally civilian government in 2011. While filming “The Floating Tomatoes” in 2009, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi had to be subtle with his camera.

“If authorities approached us, we couldn’t say we were filming. We just said we were there [at the lake] to sightsee and take some shots,” said the director, who started making films in Burma after returning to the country in 2003. “This is how we survived under the military government. Now it’s very easy. We can take our cameras anywhere—we don’t need to hide.”

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi’s documentary about Suu Kyi comes after French director Luc Besson’s 2011 release of “The Lady,” which became a popular bootleg DVD purchase in Burma but was never shown in the country’s movie theaters.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi offered some criticism for Besson’s biopic, which he watched at a film festival in neighboring Thailand. “As a feature film, based on our national leader, I felt that the director didn’t do proper research. He made a lot of historical inaccuracies,” he said.

The Burmese director said he could not compare “The Lady” with his own documentary, since they were two different categories of films. But he said he aimed to offer an emotional, personal look into the democracy icon’s life with his own project.

“She always tries to cover up her heart, her real heart. But my documentary takes a look at her heart,” he said. “Everyone knows about her political activities, so I didn’t want to make that kind of documentary about her.”

He said Suu Kyi was skeptical in the beginning but has proven to be more open than expected. “Before the first interview, she told me, ‘If I don’t want to answer, I will not,’” he said with a laugh. “But so far, she hasn’t declined to answer any of my questions.”

The filmmaker, however, is keeping a few secrets of his own for now. He said he had not yet selected a title for the film, and when asked what kinds of questions he was posing to the Lady, he offered little more than another laugh.

“For that,” he said, “I think I should wait and not say anything before my documentary is released.”